Colorado River District eyes purchase of Shoshone water rights for long-term preservation
By Bob Berwyn
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SUMMIT COUNTY — “Even though we have this moisture outside, it’s not adding to the snowpack. It’s keeping us even,” said Blue River Basin water commissioner Scott Hummer, launching the May 12 State of the River meeting in Frisco.
Read more from Hummer, as well as from the Bureau of Reclamation on Green Mountain Reservoir, Denver Water, and the Colorado River District’s Eric Kuhn on Colorado River issues after the break …
Hummer said the snowpack at lower elevations is going fast, with automated SNOTEL sites in the Blue River Basin reading 69.5 percent of average basin-wide. Above Dillon Reservoir, the snowpack is about 77 percent of average, but a station at Summit Ranch, in the Lower Blue, is only reading at 4 percent of the historic average.
Streamflows in the basin are also below average because of the cool weather, Hummer said, adding that there is very little chance of runoff flooding this year. But as always, flash flooding can become a concern if there is a big rain event while streams are running high.
Despite the low snowpack, reservoir storage in Summit County and across the state is higher than average, so Hummer is not expecting any severe shortages this summer.
Right now, most of the water from the Blue River Basin is being captured for storage in Dillon Reservoir and Green Mountain Reservoir, which should help bring both the reservoirs up to optimum levels for recreation as the summer boating season approaches.
Hummer also said he’s working on a required abandonment list, reviewing local water rights to make sure that are being used per their decrees. Any water right that hasn’t been exercised in 10 years is subject to abandonment, he explained.
Green Mountain Reservoir
Ron Thommason, of the federal Bureau of Reclamation, explained how Green Mountain Reservoir fits into the overall water management scenario in Colorado.
“When we divert water out of Granby and Willow Creek … we offset the amount with water from Green Mountain Reservoir,” Thommason said, adding that one-third of the water in Green Mountain is set aside for that purpose.
Green Mountain was built specifically as a storage bucket to help water managers meet all the diverse needs at the right time, including irrigation and domestic use, and even upstream snowmaking at Summit County’s ski areas. Some of the reservoir’s water is also used to enhance habitat for the Colorado River’s endangered fish in what’s known as the 15-mile reach near Grand Junction, he said.
“Usually we have two operations we concern ourselves with this time of year,” he said. “This year, I haven’t been able to figure out which way we’re going.”
In dry years, Green Mountain water is used for substitution. Green Mountain Reservoir has water rights dating back to 1935, older than the water rights associated with Dillon Reservoir, but under the substitution scenario, Denver Water can capture water first, which makes sense for everyone, given that Dillon Reservoir is higher in the basin, he explained.
In dry years, Green Mountain can end up short, so Denver Water substitutes the Blue River Basin water with releases from Wolford Reservoir or Williams Fork Reservoir.
In a normal to a wetter-type year, the Bureau of Reclamation try to augment the natural late-May peak in the 15-mile reach to improve habitat for the four endangered fish species, Thommason said.
“Here’s been my dilemma this year,” Thommason said, showing a graph of projected inflows. He said the Bureau of Reclamation wasn’t sure if it would need to implement the dry-year substitution scenario, or if there will be enough water to help boost flows downstream for the native fish recovery program. The back-and-forth weather has complicated the picture, he said.
“We’re getting close to where we need to be for me to feel comfortable releasing a little extra water from Green Mountain,” he said. “We’ve got another couple of weeks to see what happens … For the near term, we’re going to be releasing about 100 cubic feet per second from Green Mountain,” he said, adding that outflows will likely be ramped up as runoff increases.
“We’re going to plan on filling the reservoir by the end of June. I usually aim for July 4,” he said. After that, a gradual draw-down begins. By the end of the fishing season in late October, the reservoir will have dropped by 45 feet, he concluded.
Denver Water & Dillon Reservoir
Denver Water’s Bob Steger said he’s confident that Dillon Reservoir will fill this spring. Six of Denver Water’s 10 major reservoirs are already full, Steger said. “They’re all going to fill, that’s the good news.” Water levels in Dillon Reservoir already are high enough to allow full marina operations as soon as the ice melts, Steger said, adding that it should be great year for flat-water recreation on the reservoir.
Conditions for rafting and kayaking below Dillon Reservoir are still weather-dependent, Steger said.
“If things dry out, we’ll start spilling sooner,” he said. If the weather is dry the next few months, there will only be a window of a few weeks with raftable flows in the Lower Blue, he said.
If the weather is wet from now on, the rafting season could be extended by several weeks, he said, explaining how Denver Water tries to balance various factors, including optimum flows for fishing, protecting Silverhorne from potential flooding and making sure storage in Dillon Reservoir stays at an optimum level.
Steger also highlighted Denver Water’s conservation efforts, saying that, overall, usage has been staying steady even as the number water users in the city grows. That enables more water to remain on the Western Slope, Steger said.
Responding to an audience question, Steger said Denver Water hasn’t been able to pinpoint the effects of the recent dust events that discolored the local snowpack. By some estimates, the darker snow can speed up run-off by several weeks. Steger said Denver Water is funding some research to look more closely at the issue.
Water and the Colorado economy
Economist Tom Binnings presented the results of a study that tries to explain the relationship between water and economic productivity. He said the study, funded by a council of Front Range water users, did not try to address the social and cultural implications of water.
The goal of the research was to try and define some of the fundamental questions about Colorado’s economic future, including a projected 1 million acre-foot gap between the projected supply and demand for water.
The study shows that about 80 to 86 percent of Colorado’s economy is focused on the Front Range, and the economists used a simple economic formula to show a relationship between water and productivity by dividing total sales of goods and services regionally by the amount of water used.
By that measure, the Front Range far outpaces the rest of the state, with total sales, including agriculture, coming in at $132,000 per acre-foot of water. The central mountain region was next, with sales of about $12,000 per acre-foot of water, with the western region (including Summit County) tallying sales of $7,200 per acre-foot.
The Colorado River District’s Jim Pokrandt said there are varying interpretations of the study. Some people consider it to be propaganda to build support for more water development projects by Front Range providers. But overall, the study helps inform the greater discussion about the importance of water in Colorado, he said.
West Slope-Front Range talks
Eric Kuhn, general manager of the Colorado River District, started his presentation by acknowledging Chips Barry’s recent death. Barry, former manager of Denver Water, died in a farm accident in Hawaii just a short time before he was set to retire. Kuhn said Barry helped change the relationship between the big Front Range water provider and the West Slope.
“Before Chips, we fought like enemies; after Chips, we fought like siblings,” Kuhn said, explaining how the nature of the relationship changed. “You still have to get along … there’s still tomorrow, you still have to be family. What Chips brought to Denver Water was a change of culture. It doesn’t mean we’re still not fighting and that we won’t fight in the future, but it changed how we fight,” he said.
Kuhn painted a big-picture scenario of Colorado River water use, putting the in-state squabbles in the context of wider western issues, with huge demand from lower basin states like California and Nevada potentially putting even more pressure on the resource.
“The big question, how much water is left in the Colorado, and it’s probably not nearly as much as we think is there is,” he said, after outlining the looming impacts of climate change.
“There’s a lot of uncertainty when we talk about climate change,” he said, acknowledging that temperatures will probably climb, increasing agricultural demand for water and speeding runoff.
Even though parts of Colorado are in a gray zone for projected climate change impacts, Kuhn said the overall effect is likely to include lower stream flows in the greater Colorado River Basin, especially in the lower river, where Colorado must meet its obligations to other states.
“Chips said it a year-and-a-half ago: The state of Colorado can’t afford to screw up in the Colorado River Basin,” Kuhn said, describing how many of the state’s other river basin’s have been overdeveloped, leading to conflicts, and in the worst case, curtailment of existing uses.
When that happens, recreation and agriculture almost inevitably are the losers, since politicians aren’t likely to take water away from households and fire hydrants, he said.
To avoid the worst-case scenarios, Colorado River stakeholders have been negotiating for 3.5 years to resolve a wide range of issues. Both the Front Range and the West Slope want to ensure a stable supply of water and some sense of finality as to how the Colorado River will be used.
According to Kuhn, Denver Water wants long-term settlements so they can go about their business of providing water to customers, while the West Slope wants more certainty on stream flows, water quality and reservoir levels, especially in Summit County, where summer recreation is an important part of the summer economy.
The West Slope also wants a long-term agreement to preserve the benefits of a very large and senior water right for the Shoshone hydropower plant that stabilizes flows for rafting and water quality in the Colorado River. If that water right ever comes up for sale, the West Slope wants an opportunity to buy it to protect it for its public values, Kuhn said. The long-term way to do that is to put it under a public district, he added.
As part of the current talks, Kuhn said Denver Water has agreed to step behind the West Slope in any line that forms to buy up the Shoshone water right.